Wood is usually classified as either hardwood or softwood. This classification doesn’t necessarily mean that hardwoods are harder (denser) than softwoods or vice versa. The truth is that the term hardwood and softwood don't actually have to do with how hard the wood is at all. It depends on how the tree reproduces.
In general, hardwood comes from angiosperms, plants that produce seeds with some sort of covering like apples or acorns. Most of the time, angiosperms or hardwoods lose their leaves during the cold weather. There are several different trees that fit into the hardwood botanical category. Generally hardwood trees have broad leaves, and they produce a fruit or nut. About 40 percent of trees in America belong to the the hardwood category.
Softwoods are gymnosperms. Their seeds fall to the ground as is without a protective covering. Softwoods are usually conifers, which means they produce cones. Gymnosperms or softwood trees are typically evergreen and they stay green all year through the cold months. Unlike hardwood trees that lose their leaves and go dormant in the winter, softwood trees keep their leaves and remain active.
You can generally tell the difference between a hardwood or a softwood by looking at the seeds around the tree. If the seed is a fruit or hard nut with a protective covering, then it is a hardwood. If the seed is unprotected or inside a cone like a pine cone, then it is a softwood. You can also tell the difference by looking at the leaves or needles. Leaves grow on hardwood and needles grow on softwood.
Almost 80 percent of lumber is made from softwood. Because softwood lumber is so plentiful, it typically costs less than hardwood. It’s easy to find and you won’t have to wait for delivery because most lumber supply companies will have it on hand.
Softwoods aren’t the best choice for cabinets, though. Softwoods contain natural resins which emit terpenes and volatile organic compounds. These can cause health problems for people with asthma, other breathing problems, allergies or sensitivities. Softwoods also break down faster, scratch easily and need more finishing to seal resins inside.
Even though hardwood may be more expensive than softwood, the lack of resin makes it more durable and more resistant to scratches and damage. The lower odor emissions of hardwood also make it a healthier choice because it’s less likely to provoke allergy or asthma attacks. Hardwood sports a nice grain pattern as well, which looks good in cabinetry.
Finding hardwood lumber may take a little more work than softwood, but the moisture content is generally lower. The less moisture content, the less likely it is for the wood to warp and damage the structure of the cabinet. If you’re sourcing hardwood from a local sawmill, ask for kiln-dried wood. Lumber yards will usually stock air-dried wood dried for over a year to lower the moisture content.
Hardwood is the wood of choice for cabinetry. In general, the pros of hardwood greatly outweigh those of softwood. Make the hard choice and produce a quality product with hardwood for your cabinets.
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